“Since salvation is of grace, it is, by definition, not deserved by anyone, and so God has a sovereign right to choose those whom he will save. But I am uncomfortable with the grounds for the condemnation of those who are left in their sin as these have been stated traditionally in Calvinist theologies. I have also found it rather difficult to understand some passages of Scripture that describe God’s distress at the unbelief of those who reject him. A case in point is Jesus’ pain at the rejection by most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood unders her wings, and you were not willing!’ (Mt. 23:37, emphasis mine). Why, I have wondered, is Jesus so disturbed when he knows that only those whom the Father draws will come to him (Jn. 6:44) and that all of them will do so (Jn. 6:37)?” (Dr. Terrance L. Tiessen, “Who Can Be Saved? ReAssessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004, page 234)
I’m still reading through Dr. Tiessen’s work titled “Who Can Be Saved? ReAssessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions.” Let me just say, before I head into the post itself, that I think everyone should read Dr. Tiessen’s book. There are some things he says that I do agree with. For example, he supports the idea that God reaches those peoples it is impossible to evangelize by granting them a special revelation of Himself. What I’ve been thinking about while reading his book is that there are many people, unknown, who have never seen a human missionary. And so, the question of the unevangelized is one that we all must wrestle with. Dr. Tiessen seems to think that too many people turn to general revelation as a way out of the problem; in response, Dr. Tiessen suggests that special revelation be thought of as containing more than just the Scriptures themselves. He argues that special revelation also concerns dreams and visions, which he still believes are being given today (especially in Muslim countries). I for one agree with him. I think that broadening our impression of special revelation will keep us from becoming inclusivist and turning to general revelation as a salvific source (which is Clark Pinnock’s view). This may sound shocking, but Moises Amyraut, founder of Amyraldianism (four-point Calvinism), held to the idea that general revelation is salvific.
Today’s post will concern some dilemmas of Scripture that Dr. Tiessen has. What blessed me most reading the quote above is that Dr. Tiessen struggles with the Bible’s emphasis on human freedom and self-determination. I always had an assumption (we can safely call it that) that Calvinist theologians rarely (hardly) struggled with such passages in Scripture. However, the opposite is apparently the case. Calvinists do struggle with these kinds of passages. For Arminians, that should encourage us because we struggle with Calvinistic passages a whole lot less than Calvinists struggle with Arminian passages. In fact, I will be bold and state that Classical Arminianism can incorporate Calvinist passages into their system without leaving Arminianism (this may shock Calvinists and Molinists).
There are two underlined statements above. The first is this:
“I have also found it rather difficult to understand some passages of Scripture that describe God’s distress at the unbelief of those who reject him.”
The Calvinist notion of grace is “Irresistible Grace”, letter “I” of the “TULIP” (acronym for five points of Calvinism). Irresistible grace says that those the Lord chooses for salvation will be drawn to Him in such a way that they cannot refuse the Lord’s wooing. They can do nothing but confess and believe because God first regenerates them before faith. Some Calvinistic theologians have found this hard to embrace and have instead attempted a “hybrid” approach, merging irresistible grace with some form of “resistible grace.” The result of the merging of these two opposing notions of grace is what Molinists label “overcoming grace.” Overcoming grace posits that initially, believers resist God’s advances...but ultimately, believers “must” give in. It is inevitable in the overcoming grace model that God wins. In Calvinistic theologians, God always wins the soul of one He selects for salvation.
Dr. Tiessen quotes Matthew 23:37 as a testimony to the idea that humans can really choose to be saved. The part that most stands out in the verse is “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood unders her wings, and you were not willing!” This part of the verse shows God’s desire to save people who are not “willing” to be saved. How else can this be explained but a case where humans resist God’s desires and reject Him? This is at least testimony to Classic Arminians that our interpretations of the text are not crazy; that is, that we are not proof-texting in our theology...rather, we are reading Scripture correctly. The fact that a five-point Calvinist can affirm our interpretation of Matthew 23:37 is pretty shocking, indeed!
The last part of the quote that seems to shock Dr. Tiessen is how he attempts to reconcile Matthew 23:37 and John 6:
“Why, I have wondered, is Jesus so disturbed when he knows that only those whom the Father draws will come to him (Jn. 6:44) and that all of them will do so (Jn. 6:37)?”
When Dr. Tiessen says, “Why...is Jesus so disturbed,” he is assuming that his interpretation of Matthew 23:37. However, he finds it “rather difficult” to reconcile this text of Jesus’ frustration with Jerusalem when he thinks that he has a correct interpretation of passages that state that only certain ones will come to God. Tiessen’s dilemma is that, if only certain people will come to God, then, consequently, those that God did not pick will not come to Him. If God rejects the “non-elect”, why would God be frustrated that the “non-elect” would not come to Him?
The answer is very simple: within Matthew 23:37, we see that Jesus desires to gather Jerusalem to Himself. He desires that they come to Him. If God desires everyone to come to Him, then what do we do with John 6:44? Tiessen claims that the text states, “only those whom the Father draws”; however, the text does not state this: rather, the text states that “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws Him.” There is a difference, however: Tiessen’s interpretation of the text (“only those whom the Father draws”) implies that there are those the Father does not draw. This is a philosophical belief that the theology of the Scriptures does not confirm. The verse simply states that man, of his own, is unable to come to Christ without the drawing of the Spirit. This just affirms the need for the Spirit’s work in salvation; it is not a text that limits the number of persons the Spirit draws in salvation.
If we affirm that the Spirit excludes the non-elect from salvation, and yet Jesus is frustrated with the non-elect, it makes Christ fit the philosophical notion of God present within Open Theism: that is, God becomes frustrated with those who do not come because He did not know of their actions in advance. Rather, Christ expresses frustration regarding Jerusalem because it is the very Jews that Christ came for. John’s Gospel states that He “came unto His own,” His own being the Jews (John 1:11), but they did not receive Him.
John’s Gospel blames the Jews for their rejection of the Messiah. God does not reject the Jews because of some unknown decree made in eternity (which Scripture does not teach). In the end, Tiessen’s struggle with these texts is not because he cannot understand them (like Matt. 23:37); rather, he is frustrated within because these clear texts do not fit the interpretations of the Calvinist texts he has so dearly espoused. If you ask me, Tiessen does not have a problem with my Arminianism...rather, it’s his Calvinism that proves problematic.